The University Record, September 24, 2001

Pets by prescription: Therapaws delivers message of joy

By Lesley Harding

Patient Theda Blough receives a dose of puppy love from Therapaws. (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)
Take two aspirin and call Gus, Torie or one of the 12 other Therapaws’ dogs at the U-M Hospital. These prescription pooches make the rounds six days a week offering comfort, support, love and sometimes a slobbery kiss to patients, their families and friends.

Therapaws began at the hospital in 1988 to provide a special kind of healing. The dogs went from room to room for brief visits and plenty of pets. Today, that’s still a big part of the program. Every day of the week, except for Sunday, at least one Therapaws dog is at the hospital making visits to designated floors and rooms.

These pets with a purpose even stop by surgical waiting rooms. “We call them the great stress relievers,” says Therapaws program consultant Sue Fischer. “If anyone wants to see how quickly an atmosphere can change, visit a waiting room with one of our dogs. People are tense and stressed out but with a wag of a tail, it starts conversation and makes people smile.”

Unlike when the program first began, these pets now get involved in the rehabilitation of patients. Therapy dogs are used to help children with their range of motion and mobility. By throwing balls or walking over to these furry friends, kids think they’re just playing, but it’s actually helping them get stronger. Health care workers say the dogs are great motivators during therapy sessions.

“A lot of times, people respond more to animals than humans. They get a sense of healing from these dogs,” says Gus’ owner, Suzanne Mahler.

“They light up,” says Ella Ursiny-Ball, 6C Unit Host at the U-M Hospital. “Someone’s coming just to visit. They’re not there to poke, prod or ask questions. Sometimes it’s just nice to have something warm to touch and remind them of home.”

“Gus reminds me of my dog, Daisy,” says patient Lee Jean. “I’ll probably think of her a few more times today because of his visit. It also makes me wonder when I’m going to get to see her next.”

Torie made the day for patient Theda Blough. “My husband’s here and that’s nice, but Torie just came to see me and that’s really nice.”

While many patients have come to expect and even look forward to these furry visits, it’s still kind of unusual to see a dog prancing through a hospital. When the program first started, Fischer says she got on an elevator with her dog, Willy, and someone asked her, “What’s he in for?”

These dogs are definitely spreading cheer to patients but it’s also doing the same for hospital care givers. One staff member told Fischer that she doesn’t mind coming to work on Monday because the dogs are on her floor. “It just brings a smile to your face,” says Ursiny-Ball.

The majority of Therapaws dogs are Golden Retrievers and Labradors. Two were even adopted from the Humane Society. It does take a special kind of dog to make these kinds of rounds. All Therapaws pets go through extensive training to make sure they’re obedient, friendly and in good health.

Aside from plenty of attention and a lot of cookies, therapy dog owners say these incredible pets also benefit by the visits. “Any time we pull out the brown leash and badge, Gus knows we’re going to the hospital,” says Mahler. He does a spritely dance step and once he gets to the hospital he knows to get his body and face in close to the patient. “Torie waits by the garage door,” says Sloan.

Hospital workers say Therapaws doles out a medicine not found in a pill or vaccination. Man’s best friend delivers a special kind of healing that many call love.